Topic outline

  • Written by: Suzanne Monir, Wilson Ho, Miguel Rico, Kimberly Tran, EIS Education Team Members, April 2016
    Title: How to Design a Microgravity Experiment
    Grade (Age) Level: High School (Ages 14-18), University 

    This course is to help students focus their efforts in the task of designing a microgravity experiment for EIS. 

    Experiment Design, Microgravity considerations, microbiological experiments, physical experiments, engineering experiments and physical experiments   

    ByPass Publishing's Difficult Topics Explained

    ByPass Publishing's Difficult Topics Explained

    Before moving on...  since all of your experiments will take place in microgravity, you might want to review microgravity here:

    [Video Credits: ouLearn on YouTube]


    Image:  Brainstorm

    How to Brainstorm for your Experiment:

    1. Identify problems for Earth and/or space.

    2. Identify the space environment factors (microgravity, radiation, vacuum) that could help you explore your chosen problem.

    3. Determine how your experiment will contribute to a viable solution to the problem.

    4. Identify the constraints of the experiment format.

    5. Eliminate overly complex designs and make sure your experiment is subject to as few uncontrollable variables as possible.

    6. Determine the data gathering and analysis methods that will be implemented.

    7. Plan for possible contingency scenarios and be flexible in the experiment procedure.

    8. Optimize the experiment if needed.

    For more on on how to design an experiment with Space parameters in mind, go back to Recent Space News.  (Recent Space News opens in a new tab.)

  • Coming up with an experiment for EIS is a very daunting task. There’s so much we don’t know, and there are many experiments you could do to further our understanding of the world. Here are some experiments that NASA is currently running on the ISS, or on other orbiting satellites. Many of the categories below fall under various types of engineering designs, such as satellites. Hopefully these will help inspire creativity for you to begin your own projects!

    There are 5 different categories of experiments:

    • Biology and Biotechnology

    • Earth and Space Science

    • Human Research

    • Physical Science

    • Technology Development and Demonstration

    There are also educational activities and outreach experiments if you want to find out how NASA is inspiring the next generation to get involved in space exploration.


    Biology and Biochemistry

    1. Epigenetics in space flown C. elegans [Photo credits:]

    C. Elegans in Space courtesy

      1. Previous experiments have shown that spaceflight induces transcriptional changes of muscle and metabolic related genes. This experiment will determine how microgravity affects epigenetic change.

      2. Upon return to Earth, the team will study the entire gene and protein expression, histone modifications, microRNA expression, and physiological changes.

      3. This study advances our understanding of epigenetics, and helps develop different medicines and therapies in the future for bone and muscle degradation.

      4. Find more information here:

    1. Repurposing metformin as an anti-cancer agent [Photo Credits:]


      1. Microgravity changes how drugs and other molecules are transported within the body. Metformin is an anticancer agent, and it will be studied in bacteria to evaluate the molecular mechanism of various chemotherapeutic drugs.

      2. A large array of yeast with various genes knocked out are grown in the presence of a test drug and metformin. Results are analyzed and compared with strains grown on the ground.

      3. By studying yeast cells, this experiment will help us understand how drugs affect specific tissues to both maximize drug effectiveness and minimize unwanted side effects.

      4. Find more information here:

    1. Studies on gravity-controlled growth and development in plants using true microgravity conditions [ Photo credits:]

    plants in space

      1. Previous experiments have shown that auxin transport changes with different magnitudes of gravity. This experiment will clarify the role of auxin in pea and maize growth, and will reveal how microgravity will affects plant development.

      2. Upon return to Earth, the team will analyze and compare auxin concentration and transport rate with ground plants. The team will also look at how microgravity affects genes that produce auxin.

      3. This research is important for long-term space travel, both for oxygen and fresh produce for astronauts. It also advances our understanding of gravitropism, and how auxins help plants adapt to changes in gravity.

      4. Find more information here:


  • Earth and Space Science

    1. Meteor Composition Determination Meteor

      1. Meteors are often difficult to analyze on the ground due to interference from the Earth’s atmosphere. The measurements are limited to very short periods of observation time at a small portion of the Earth’s atmosphere. Specifically, ozone absorption masks the important “organic” carbon spectral emission.

      2. Throughout its time in Space, meteors that cross the field of view of the observer’s instruments will be recorded photographically or electronically. All spectral measurements will be made with a spectrograph, which records wavelengths instantaneously. Investigators can determine elemental abundance by comparing known spectra to observed spectra.

      3. It is important to understand the elemental composition of meteors, both to contribute to our understanding of how planets developed, and to monitor for carbon-based compounds.

      4. Find more information here:

    2. Development of Methods to Determine the Carbon Dioxide and Methane (Greenhouse gases) Content in the Earth’s Atmosphere from On-Board the ISS

      1. This experiment will remotely determine the methane and carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere, and compare greenhouse gas emissions to natural and human-populated areas.

      2. Attached to the ISS will be a digital camera. The images will be filtered with a software developed by the investigators to identify greenhouse gases.

      3. It is important to continue the collection of data on climate change, and convince the world that humans have a significant impact on global temperatures.  

      4. Find more information here:

    3. Examination of the Flow of High Speed and Thermal Neutrons

      1. Crew members aboard the ISS found that radiation exposure during extravehicular activity varied significantly depending on the station’s orbital position. This experiment will help improve current radiation models, and examine the complete amount of radiation astronauts are exposed to.

      2. This experiment will develop a physical model of neutron albedo of the Earth’s atmosphere, and record radiation levels of randomly generated space gamma bursts.

      3. It is important to understand the dosage of radiation astronauts are receiving in order to develop proper spacesuits for protection, and prevent radiation overdose that could have serious long-term health consequences.

      4. Find more information here:

  • Human Research

    1. The effect of long-term microgravity exposure on cardiac autonomic function by analyzing 48-hour electrocardiograms Cardiogram icon by

      1. The experiment will examine how the body’s natural biological clock affects cardiac function during spaceflight.

      2. Crew members wear a watch that monitors rest and activity for 96 hours. The electrocardiograph is a built-in function that can measure heart activity for 48 hours. Measurements are taken 3 times - before flight, during flight, and after flight.

      3. This experiment is important for improving crew health technology during long-duration spaceflight, and may provide insight on how the general public could achieve a more healthy daily lifestyle.

      4. Find more information here:

    2. Medical Consumables Tracking

      1. The investigators will use radio-frequency identification codes to track what medicines and medical supplies aboard the ISS have been used, and what remains available to the crew.

      2. Each item has a unique identifier attached. Upon removal from the shelf, the tag automatically transmits its information to the ground team on Earth.

      3. This experiment will provide information on cargo decisions for future long-duration missions by determining which supplies are necessary, and in what quantities. It could also be useful in warehouses, hospitals, and other locations where remotely monitoring inventory is important.

      4. Find more information here:

    3. Stability of Nutritional Compounds

      1. This experiment studies the effect of a spaceflight environment on complex organic molecules by collecting data on select foods flown in space for varied lengths of time.

      2. Upon return the Earth, the samples will undergo a number of physical and chemical evaluations to determine the shelf-life and degradation rates of vitamin and amino acid contents.

      3. This research will help develop more stable and reliable foods that are suitable for long duration missions beyond low-Earth orbit. It will also assist explorers on Earth to make healthy choices for long-term explorations of inhospitable habitats like the Antarctic.

  • Physical Science

    1. Burning and Suppression of Solids [Photo credits:]

    Burning Solids

      1. This investigation examines the burning and extinguishing characteristics of a variety of fuel samples in microgravity. It will guide strategies for extinguishing accidental fires, and contribute to combustion computational models for fire detection and suppression systems.

      2. A flame is ignited using each fuel, and then extinguished by focusing compressed gas at a variety of locations. On Earth, we know that the best way to put out a fire is to focus on the base of the flame, which is both the stabilization point and where fresh air first enters the flame.  By spraying gas at a variety of locations, the experiment will demonstrate how to most effectively extinguish fire in a microgravity environment.

      3. Fire is one of the primary concerns aboard the ISS, and it is critical that researchers continue to develop better safety precautions. In addition, the combustion models will strengthen our understanding of flames burning under normal gravity.

      4. Find more information here:

    1. Capillary Effects of Drinking in the Microgravity Environment

      1. Currently, crew members must use special sealed bags in order to consume liquids. The investigators have developed a specially designed Space Cup to use fluid dynamics to mimic a gravitational force.

      2. Rather than relying on gravity, the cup uses surface tension, wetting, and cup geometry to contain liquids. High-resolution videos will be taken and analyzed to determine how the fluid moves.

      3. This analysis of fluid flow will not only make it easier for astronauts to drink, but will also help design new reliable fluid control systems that do not have moving parts or electric power requirements.

      4. Find more information here:

    2. Viscous Liquid Foam - Bulk Metallic Glass

      1. Metal foam consists of a solid metal, as well as a large volume fraction of gas-filled pores that gives the material a high strength to weight ratio. These materials can lead to more durable spacecrafts that will require less propellant to travel long distances.

      2. Samples of the metallic glass will be heated for different times, and the location of the pores in the foam will be analyzed back on Earth.  Since the effects of buoyancy are minimized in space, more uniform foam structures with unique properties can be produced.

      3. This material is extremely tough and light at the same time, thereby reducing costs while increasing the protection they provide to explorers. Metal foam is also used ubiquitously on Earth, from medical supplies to industrial processing, sports equipment and military vehicles.

      4. Find more information here:

    Technology Development and Demonstration

    1. Skinsuit

      1. Bone and muscle waste away in microgravity because they have less work to do. The Skinsuit is a suit specifically designed to counteract microgravity by squeezing the body with a similar force that is felt on Earth.

      2. The suit’s main goal is to prevent lower back pain and spine elongation. Astronauts will also evaluate the suit in terms of comfortability, hygiene, and range of motion to prepare for long duration missions.

      3. The suit has potential for use on Earth by helping the elderly and many people with lower-back problems. It could also improve support garments that are currently used for people with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy.

      4. Find more information here:

    2. Urine Processor Assembly Hardware Improvements

      1. Since water is a precious resource aboard the ISS, astronauts need to recycle their own urine. This process is mainly done through vacuum distillation. However, the current systems aboard the ISS have experienced failures due to hardware complexity and weak materials.

      2. New improvements include more advanced machinery to prevent tension after long-term usage. It also simplifies assembly, and has a much lower chance of leakage while in orbit.

      3. The primary goal of this investigation is to increase reliability of regenerative water systems, which will benefit both current and future space explorations. In addition, this technology will result in the development of more reliable lightweight, portable waste processing equipment used on Earth. These systems are important for emergency use, and in areas with poor sanitation or unsafe drinking water.

      4. Find more information here:

    3. Universal Battery Charger [Photo credits:]


      1. This technology will provide a system to charge different types of batteries aboard the ISS.

      2. Already demonstrated to work on Earth, the technology is currently being tested to see if it will function in microgravity. Each type of battery has a unique adapter; written on the adapter are instructions on how to adjust the charger to safely and effectively replenish the battery.

      3. A universal charger that can accommodate any device reduces cargo delivery and storage requirements, which frees up space for experiments and other equipment. The system also reduces payload developers’ burdens to make and test battery chargers for specific uses.

      4. Find more information here:

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